My Ten Rules for Writing (…at least for this week)

23 02 2010

(Inspired by this article — http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/feb/20/ten-rules-for-writing-fiction-part-one)

*NOTE: I am still a struggling writer hoping to one day make a name for himself and, perhaps, even sell some novels. I am not a successful professional author by any (conventional) stretch of those words at this point in my “career.” As always, take my writing advice (as you should any writing advice) with a grain of salt.  I’m just thinking out loud here.

1) Keep a sense of humor.  An appreciation for dark comedy is extremely helpful. You will face rejection.  Even if published, you will get bad reviews. You will find typos and other embarrassing mistakes in your stories once published that weren’t there before that were somehow missed by first readers, second readers, and even your editors. You can either see your life as a writer as a tragedy or as a dark comedy. I choose to view my struggle as a comedy. I am fairly ridiculous, after all. Just look at me!

2) That person who rejected you was wrong! (Unless they happened to be right.) At some point, you may start to receive more personalized rejections than form rejections. I’ve been told this is a good thing, but somehow, for some reason, those “almost but not good enough” notes almost hurt more than the forms. They can be frustrating. But pay attention to the editorial feedback if any is given. It can be valuable (or it can be crap). I tend to live by the “Rule of Three.” If something is pointed out as being wrong with a piece just once, it’s just an opinion and you can take it or leave it. However, if you receive similar feedback from three or more sources (especially if you get it from all three of the “Big Three”), there’s probably something to that criticism and you should revise accordingly. No matter what, don’t let rejections get you down. Go back to rule #1 and learn to laugh at your own failures (even if it is just a bitter little chuckle more than an actual laugh).

3) Read, read, read. Goes without saying, really. We’ve all heard this one before. Yet, I encourage you to read outside your comfort zone. I try to read across as many genres as possible and don’t forget to read non-fiction. Return to the classics from time to time, but it’s always good to keep an eye on the current market and read your contemporaries, too.

4) Write, write, write. Yeah, I know you know! But seriously, give yourself some structure. If you’re unpublished, impose your own deadlines. I try to write either two short novels or one long novel a year. While working on a novel, I go for 5,000 words a week. When not working on a novel, I tend to set a goal of a short story a week.

5) Rest, rest, rest. Creative batteries need time to recharge. If you’re like me and are juggling a family and day job in addition to your writing “career,” give yourself a few nights off a week. Take time for your kids. Take time for your spouse. Take time for you. Take time to think and reflect and live (and don’t forget to exercise – healthy body, healthy mind). I firmly believe in taking a few weeks off directly before and directly after working on a novel-length project. When I go on vacation, I leave my writing “career” behind with my day job.

6) Have fun. If writing isn’t fun for you, don’t do it! If you don’t love it, it isn’t the “career” for you.  It is not an easy way to make a living (in fact, many of us don’t make a living from it at all other than being able to supplement our income to pay an odd monthly expense here or there).  If I were to add up all the hours I have spent cultivating this “career” of mine, I probably made more money per hour with my high school job as a busboy and dishwasher lugging around dirty cast iron skillets at Top O’ The River.

7) Have a good day job. Ideally one that offers health insurance, retirement, and other benefits. This makes things much less stressful. If you can manage it, find something with a flexible schedule. I love that my day job allows me to leave my responsibilities at the door; I never have to take my work home with me. My job has its challenges and stresses while I’m there, but those don’t come home with me. Teachers seem to do well with writing, too. Summers off are a great thing for a writer, I’m sure. Professors, especially those who teach creative writing, are expected to write.

8) Don’t believe the mystic crap. Once upon a time and long ago, I partied. I partied hard. I partook in things no sane person should ever partake in. I thought this was what all writers did, but there was one very big problem – during this time I rarely wrote. I was too busy partying or nursing hangovers. Those were lost and wasted years. When I did write, I could rarely decipher my own thoughts the next day. I may have taken some inspiration from those times, but those days were not healthy and they were rarely productive. I ruined relationships and had a hard time juggling my jobs, school, and other responsibilities. It wasn’t until much later — once I found sobriety and stability in my own identity, family, and career — that I really felt like I could write. Writing requires discipline. You can wait around forever for some mystical muse (She’s rarely at the bottom of a bottle! She may not even exist!) or you can work out your own stories with your own blood, sweat, tears, and time. As an added bonus, I have also found that writing sober means less rewrites.

9) Unpublished? So what? It’s easy to feel jealous of professionally published authors, but maybe, just maybe, some of them are actually jealous of you. A professionally published author may have contracts to continue on a series they no longer care about. They may have been pigeonholed into a genre they have grown to hate. As an unpublished author you have complete freedom. Enjoy it! Take this opportunity to develop your voice, experiment with different narrative structures. Try mixing different genres. Find yourself and your voice. Make your writing your own and do it for you — it’s not selfish at this point if you don’t have an agent, editor, or fans with expectations riding on you. Enjoy this time. That’s what I’m doing.  Last year I wrote a post-apocalyptic young adult novel with zombies, bigfoot, aliens, and airships that was also a serious coming of age novel concerning matters of faith and relationships. I followed this up by starting a non-linear and untraditional acid western novel (more Herman Hesse or Borges than Louis L’Amour) which I recently finished. Not to mention the various short stories and poems I wrote in several different genres with various narrative structures. I’ve only recently started to find my voice. I grow more and more confident in my writing every day, and I’m having a blast doing it.

10) There are no rules. Notice something about the article I linked to above? Every writer had different rules for writing. It makes for a strange paradox – all of them are wrong and all of them are right. These rules are not written in stone. Write your own rules and feel free to change them from time to time (I know I do).

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One response

27 02 2011
Keith Graham

My favorite rule is “Write the good bits first”. Lots of times I get stuck writing the boring parts of a story. I know they are boring and I can’t seem to get through them. I’ve started writing only the good parts of a story, the parts that write themselves. Then I go back and try to piece them together with as few words as possible. This seems to bypass the boring parts altogether. The reader then sees the best parts of a story without having to wade through the crap.

So whenever the story slows down, skip to a good part and start writing that. A good story is like a string of pearls – the reader should never see the string.

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